Blair Anthony Robertson

First Impressions: Chez Daniel and Pork Belly Grub Shack score strongly

Published: Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1I
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:18 pm

First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at brobertson@sacbee.com.

Chez Daniel

49 Natoma St., Folsom

Daniel Pont is back, though his charming and rustic lunch-only joint on a seedy downtown block has been replaced by a charming, white tablecloth, dinner-only French bistro in a Folsom strip mall.

The 72-year-old French chef with the legion of fans sold La Bonne Soupe earlier in 2011 and, we were led to believe, stepped to the sidelines for a well-earned retirement after six-plus years of soup and sandwiches done with all the acumen of a classically trained artisan chef.

For years before that transaction, he delighted many, frustrated some and was probably responsible for more long lunches – and more creative excuses back at the office – than any restaurateur in Sacramento history.

The wait for soup and a sandwich could be interminable, but it was almost always entertaining. The chef worked alone and went about his business – from ladling soup to making change – in an unflappable way, which some might translate as super slo-mo.

But his retirement was over faster than you could utter "boeuf bourguignonne."

In Folsom, it is much different. The staff has tripled – he has a waiter and a dishwasher. There are no long lines. Now the phone rings and rings. Chez Daniel takes reservations, and they fill up quickly. We tried three times before we finally scored a table.

The restaurant is classically French in style, housed in a strip mall that is classically American and suburban, meaning you will find everything from a dry cleaners to a martial arts center among the neighboring storefronts.

Pont's food is no longer centered around soup and sandwiches. Though it is too soon to do a full review, it is safe to say that more of his culinary skills are in evidence at this new venture. Salmon poached in white wine. Organic breast of chicken with raspberry vinegar. Pork tenderloin with apples and cider. Braised rabbit with a rosemary mustard sauce. New York steak with caramelized onions and a sauce of red wine reduction. Duck, scallops, rack of lamb, beef tenderloin, too.

Dinner is served in four courses – soup, then salad, the main entree, followed by a dessert of your choosing. Scratch that – a dessert of the chef's choosing. That's right, democracy is not a four-course affair at Chez Daniel. Prices for the four-course experience range roughly from $24 (the chicken) to $28.50 (the duck).

"I just want to mention one thing," our waiter told us, "the salmon was brought this afternoon. It is wild Atlantic salmon. Beautiful flesh. It is poached and served with a nice white wine sauce."

Say no more. We ordered the salmon and the beef tenderloin, and were impressed – but not surprised – by the accuracy of the cooking. The salmon was tender and moist throughout. The steak medallion was delicious with the sauce, though we found the portion alarmingly small. Both dishes contained the identical vegetables – green beans, carrots and scalloped potatoes.

Pont is clever. He knows how to make time work for him. With no help in the kitchen, this is the only way he can handle the crucial timing and pacing issues. He pulled it off in a full dining room.

Desserts are charming – and a tad eccentric. His repertoire includes fruit tarts, cherries jubilee, crème caramel and crepes.

"I give everybody at the table a different dessert. I don't let them choose, and some people don't like that – including my own daughter," Pont told me recently by phone.

Wine is a simple pleasure here, as Pont intends it to be. The selection is small, but the French options won't disappoint and they are not expensive. We had a medium-bodied red from Pomerol, the French wine appellation known for its merlot.

The downside to an upscale Daniel Pont is this: We can't see him in action. That was part of the appeal downtown. Here, his work is behind closed doors. If he had time and had the audacity to, oh, I don't know, hire a sous chef and prep cook like every other restaurant in the civilized world, maybe the chef would have time to make the rounds and greet customers. It would only make Chez Daniel more appealing.

Pork Belly Grub Shack

4261 Truxel Road, Sacramento

From a small strip mall in Folsom to strip mall sprawl in Natomas, we're chasing after the newest and best food going.

Armed with two iPhones and with Siri barking directions – and misdirections – we finally stumbled upon this modest but exciting venture nestled among a series of shopping centers.

The name is cool, the menu is cool, and it's owned and operated by two of the cool young chefs in town, Billy Ngo of Kru fame and Aimel Formoli of Formoli's Bistro.

The Grub Shack is a chance for Ngo and Formoli to go downscale and informal while still showing off their inventiveness and their ability to showcase flavors and textures.

Oh, and they work pork belly and fried eggs into food in cool ways, too – the former sprinkled over French fries, the latter topping a burger already bulging at the seams.

Ngo and Formoli are not holding their breath for an endorsement by the American Heart Association. But I'm betting hearty, adventurous eaters are going to eat this place up.

If you have yet to try pork belly, this is a place to dig in – you'll find it on the fries, in a salad, in sandwiches, on a burger. Done right, it can be crispy on the outside and dreamy and creamy inside. It is fattening, to be sure, but a little decadence goes a long way.

The hours are odd for now. When we visited, the guy at the counter told us they were closing at 6 p.m. Formoli tells me they've pulled back to 4:30 p.m. as they focus on lunch, though the hours could extend once folks find it and business picks up.

Find it? You can practically sniff it out among all the ordinary chains in the area. This place is fun and affordable, and it serves the kind of food that chefs would eat once they finish working a long, hard shift in a restaurant kitchen. We had two of the biggest burgers in memory and lived to tell about it, stains down the front of my shirt and all.

The "Notorious P.I.G." comes on a toasted ciabatta roll, topped with cheddar, crispy pancetta, mixed greens and a house-made sauce for good measure. All that: $7.

That was the more civilized of our two burgers. The "Hot Mess" was $8 worth of burger, caramelized onions, two kinds of cheese, spicy sauce and roasted garlic aioli. Oh, and how could we forget – they top it off with a fried egg. Readers of all ages will need plenty of napkins and, just maybe, a stick of Tide to Go instant stain remover for that white dress shirt.

The banh mi sandwich on a baguette stars roasted pork belly, too, complete with carrots pickled-in house, daikon slaw, cilantro, jalapeños and cucumbers.

And the Grub Shack knows how to do fried chicken. The "funky fried chicken" is $7.50, and crisp and tasty. Those pork belly fries are $5 and recommended anytime except activities in which a food coma would be a bad thing. The Asian street tacos are fun and cheap at $1.75.

We're eager to return for more soon.

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